Zivia Lubetkin: Warsaw Ghetto Leader

Zivia LubetkinZivia Lubetkin


Youth Resistance Leader

Warsaw, Poland

Zivia Lubetkin – camp counselor. The title sounds demeaning for one of the legendary leaders of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yet the title fits. As conditions deteriorated for the Polish Jews during World War II, twenty-something Zivia trained, protected, and inspired the teenagers she took under her care.

When Zivia believed that the Germans intended to occupy Poland and seal its borders, she smuggled Jewish teenagers through Romania to Palestine.

When she understood that the Germans meant to dehumanize the Jews, she organized underground schools for youth.

When she saw the increasing scarcity of food, she organized work permits for her youth, and taught them to live communally.

When she realized that the Germans meant to starve the Jews to death in the ghetto, she put her charges to work in soup kitchens.

When she learned the Germans intended to deport the Jews to death camps, she armed her teens and fought alongside them.

After the war, she emigrated to Palestine, where she founded a kibbutz, and continued to work as a youth leader.

Where did Zivia learn these skills? She was born in Byten, Poland, a small town with an active Jewish community of approximately 300. In rural Byten, even the middle class lived without plumbing, so Zivia, one of six children, grew up unaccustomed to luxury. In addition to the Polish public school she attended, her parents made sure she was educated in all aspects of the Judaism of her time, from Zionist nationalism to Orthodox religion.

As a teenager, Zivia became involved in a local chapter of the Dror/Freiheit/Freedom movement. This was a socialist-Zionist movement that provided cultural activities for young teens, and instilled older ones with a lifelong commitment to building a Jewish home in the land of Israel. Zivia’s parents balked when she announced her intention to leave home for a communal training farm in preparation for her eventual move to a Kibbutz in Palestine. At that time, Zivia was in her early twenties, and she left home without her parents’ blessing. When she came home to visit, her leather jacket and stories of her political arrests confirmed her parents’ worst fears.

In reality, however, Zivia was far from the frivolous thug her parents worried she had become. From the beginning, Zivia took leadership seriously. She volunteered for both women’s and men’s work. She chastised comrades who bickered over petty things. She kept her doubts about the movement to herself, publicly emphasizing the movement’s moral qualities. She expressed her misgivings only in situations were acting on them made a difference.

In 1938, Zivia was called by her movement to its headquarters in Warsaw and appointed director of the network of training farms in Poland. In Warsaw she met the man who was to become her lifelong companion, Yitzchak Zuckerman, another leader and survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In Warsaw, Zivia learned that she disliked the kind of administrative work that gets done in offices, preferring to travel from city to city setting up training camps.

On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. On September 28, after a heroic civilian mobilization, Warsaw surrendered. The Nazis ruled the Poles through violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, Zivia’s work took her to the section of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union. There, Zionist activity was illegal, so Zivia worked to find “underground railroad” routes to Palestine. She returned to Warsaw at the beginning of 1940, and found that the Jews were already under the yoke of increasingly restrictive laws that ultimately left Jews impoverished and confined to the Jewish quarter, unable to work or travel to find economic support.

In October 1940, the Germans announced that all Jews — who numbered one-third of Warsaw’s population — must move to the ghetto. On November 16, just four weeks later, the ghetto was sealed by a brick wall. Entry or exit without a permit was forbidden. At times, German soldiers would enter the ghetto and fire randomly upon crowds. Jewish Police officers would grab people off the streets to be sent to forced labor factories. Organized religious, cultural, and educational activities were forbidden. Zivia, of course, took this as a signal to begin organizing. She and her colleagues recruited intellectuals friendly to their movement to teach in underground schools. They organized cultural and religious discussions as well as artistic events. As Zivia herself puts it, “we thought the decrees were aimed at obliterating any image of humanity, and thus our war was directed at preserving a human image.”

Due to an influx of refugees, the total population of the ghetto soon reached 400,000. Both apartments and public streets were dangerously overcrowded. Official food rations for Jews were set at 184 calories per person per day, to be received in the form of bread and jam, and to be purchased at 18 times the cost a German would pay for the same food. Although a few Jews managed to remain wealthy, hunger and disease were widespread. Corpses of starved adults and children lay in the street. Zivia described these events in her memoirs with a terrible mixture of compassion, pain, and anger.  She recognized that hunger leads to despair and passivity.

The Jewish community mobilized its social services through the structure of existing community organizations. Zivia played the part she knew best: she and her colleagues organized kibbutzim within the ghetto, large apartments where groups of youth lived communally. The communal ethic was strictly enforced. As Zivia put it, if one person found a potato, he or she would share it with six other people. Youth from other cities, evacuated from training camps, also arrived in the ghetto. These teens were separated from their families, and found a home inside the Dror movement ghetto kibbutzim.

Early in 1942, Zivia and her colleagues learned about the destruction of the Jews in Vilna from a movement messenger who had traveled secretly to Warsaw. Zivia was one of the first to recognize that what happened in Vilna was part of a larger program, and that the Jews had been slated for total extermination. Several of the Zionist youth movements decided to form a coalition and turn it into a fighting organization. Zivia did not believe that armed resistance from a handful of Jews would slow the Nazi machine of destruction, but she did think it would lead to a death with dignity. She also hoped that a show of military spirit might earn Jews a deeper commitment from the Polish underground. (This did happen.)

The Jewish fighting organization was formed and Zivia was appointed one of its commanders – the only woman with such a title. Zivia and her colleagues worked to establish connections with the Polish underground as well as with other factions within the Jewish underground. But the organization fell apart, demoralized by the seizure of a bag of weapons, the death of a beloved colleague, the naivete of their fellow Jews who refused to believe that deportation meant death, and, finally, the major deportation of 350,000 Warsaw ghetto Jews to Treblinka. Zivia and her friends voted to commit collective suicide, but Zivia’s husband, Yitzchak, convinced the group that suicide was an evasion of responsibility. The group then resolved to redouble its efforts, reestablish contacts and coalitions, and raise money from the Poles for weapons. Zivia preferred not to be a tactical commander for the newly reorganized army, but remained a member of the command staff, involved in all policy decisions.

It is almost impossible to describe the flavor of life in those days. One might say that Zivia’s life was like a James Bond movie – only the characters were dressed in rags instead of fine clothes; were living on broth and an occasional scrap of bread, instead of dining in fine restaurants; were mourning the death and disappearance of their loved ones instead of pursuing tantalizing new lovers. Some excerpts from the memoirs of Zivia’s husband Yitzchak give a sense of the way in which Zivia lived by her wits and made it possible for others to keep their own wits about them. Yitzchak writes, “Zivia refused to leave my side when I was arrested.” “While we were marching to the transport to Treblinka, Zivia pulled me behind a street kiosk and we were able to escape.” “When I was unsuccessful at the coalition meeting we called in Zivia to negotiate.” Other survivors say that the young girl couriers whose extremely dangerous and ultimately fatal job was to travel illegally from city to city exchanging news, money and weapons (for resistance in Poland was widespread and highly organized), always checked in with Zivia before their journeys. To Zivia they confessed any fears, and from her they received advice and encouragement. One occasion, Zivia slipped out of the ghetto illegally at night to check on the youth she had placed at a nearby farm as workers protected from deportation. Some of the youth called her “mother,” half jokingly, half affectionately.

In January 1943, the Germans entered the ghetto in order to deport a few thousand Jews for war factory labor. The Jewish Fighting Organization was eager for battle, and greeted the German soldiers with landmines and molotov cocktails. The deportation action lasted only four days, and the Germans retreated. Zivia reports that her mood and the mood of her colleagues changed completely. They felt joy at the sight of the dismembered bodies of German soldiers exploding in the landmines, and began to feel that they could accomplish something through armed resistance. The Polish underground took a deeper interest in them. They began to take over the ghetto, executing Nazi informers, taxing the few rich for weapons money, convincing other Jews that “Treblinka means Death.” This time the other Jews heeded the call to resistance. The Jews of the ghetto built a network of hundreds of underground bunkers, equipped with running water and escape routes.

When German soldiers arrived for a final deportation in April 1943, the ghetto appeared deserted – except for armed fighters, a bit wiser now in the tactics of streetfighting. The Germans were confused and embarrassed — the army quarreled with the state police, who quarreled with the local governor. But they called upon their superior military strength, burning down the ghetto in a matter of weeks, forcing the surviving Jews out of their bunkers with smoke and poison gas.

Zivia and her friends had agreed NOT to escape from the ghetto. They had even responded negatively to an offer from the Polish underground to rescue as many adults and children as possible — agreeing to the rescue of children but not adults. The ghetto needs every last pair of hands, they said. But at the last minute, they sent a scout outside the ghetto walls through the sewers, who returned with a sanitation worker willing to lead them through the sewers. Several of the escapees died along the way, but a contact form the Polish underground picked up as many as possible, driving them to the forest on the outskirts of the city, where they lived with the partisans.

Zivia found life among the partisans to be more terrifying than life in the ghetto. She never knew whom to trust. In the forest, she had to hide her Jewish nationality, for many partisans hated the “Jewish communists,” betraying them or outright murdering them. She was, as she puts it, living in a double underground: pretending to the Germans that she was passively Polish, and pretending even to fellow resistance movement members to being something she was not. Of course, Zivia organized a household in which movement members were welcome, and continued movement activities even while living in hiding among the Poles. And when the movement ordered her and Yitzchak to make their way to Palestine as soon as possible, they replied unequivocally that they could not leave their Jewish companions in Poland. Yet Zivia spoke of the time after the liquidation of the ghetto with bitterness and resentment. Although a unit of the JFO fought as a unit in the unsuccessful Warsaw uprising of 1944, Zivia felt that the JFO received no recognition, only the continued threat of danger.

Upon liberation, Zivia, exhausted and heartbroken, felt no joy. She writes, “At noon, on January 17, 1945, the Soviet tanks arrived. A mob of people exuberantly rushed out to greet them in the town market place. The people rejoiced and embraced their liberators. We stood by crushed and dejected, lone remnants of our people.”

In 1946, Zivia emigrated to Palestine. She was greeted without fanfare, as was her wish, but several months later, hundreds of people gathered to hear her testimony. Encouraged, she and other survivors of Polish ghetto uprisings founded the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz and museum, gradually adding new exhibits and educational programs.

Zivia began her 1945 testimony with these words: “It is difficult for me to speak. There must be some ultimate limit to the level of emotional experience and shock that a person can absorb. I didn’t believe that I would be able to bear it all and continue to live.”

Yet Zivia’s husband, who joined her in Palestine a year later, describes her emotional strength differently. While he, who is always photographed laughing, is “dead inside,” Zivia continues to live and grow, always summoning fresh energy for new projects.

And Zivia did continue her work in youth development, organizing, educating, lecturing. She birthed and raised two children, and lived to see a grandchild shortly before her death. She is honored in many official ways: a kibbutz, a kindergarten, a holocaust education program, and four streets were named after her. Yet Zivia herself would have shunned these honors, honoring the movement instead.

She concludes her memoir by saying, “It would be wrong, painfully wrong, to assume that the resistance displayed by the youth during the stormy days of destruction was the response of a few individuals, of Yitzchak, or Zivia, or Mordechai, or Frumka. Our fate would have been very different had we not been members of the movement…We were able to endure the life in the ghetto because we knew that we were a collective, a movement. Each of us knew that he or she wasn’t alone…the feeling that there was a community people who cared about each other, who shared ideas and values in common, made it possible for each of us to do what he or she did. This was the source of our strength to live. It is the very same source which keeps the survivors alive even today. The Jewish people stood the test.”

Sources: Zivia Lubetkin. In the Days of Destruction and Revolt; Zvi Dror, The Dream, the Revolt, The Vow; Yitzchak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory; Wladyslav Bartozewski, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Christian’s Testimony; Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; Website: Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot

  1. Was Zivia named after an ancestor named Sophia Lubetkin? I have an ancestor by that name and wonder if we are related. She resembles me.

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